Photo: Greg Nash
Campaign contributions accepted from the payday loan industry by West Tennessee congressman Stephen Fincher may sound like business as usual for the U.S. House, just another example of why so many people hold Congress in such low esteem.
But credit the Campaign for Accountability for focusing a spotlight on what looks a lot like a particularly egregious case of quid pro quo.
Fincher, the Republican representative from rural Crockett County, is one of 11 members of Congress accused by the government watchdog group of ethical breaches of conduct for accepting campaign contributions from payday lenders shortly before or after they took a series of steps supporting the industry.
Keep in mind this is an industry that in Tennessee is still allowed in many cases — despite efforts of reformers in the General Assembly — to charge customers what amounts to an annual interest rate of 417 percent.
Whatever constituents think of the farmer-turned-politician who has held the office since 2011 and sits on the House Financial Services Committee, the facts unveiled by the Campaign for Accountability are worth examining.
Records show on July 19, 2012, Fincher signed on as co-sponsor of a bill that would have negated actions to safeguard consumers from the risks of products offered by the payday lending industry. Ten days earlier, he received $5,000 in campaign contributions from payday lending executives Dennis and Kimberly Gardner of the Equity Management Group. Five days after co-sponsoring the bill, Fincher received a $2,500 campaign contribution from payday executive William Allan Jones of Jones Management.
According to The Commercial Appeal’s Michael Collins, the organization’s complaint also reveals that on June 3, 2013, less than a month after Fincher co-sponsored a similar bill, he received a $1,000 campaign contribution from a payday lending industry political-action committee, the American Financial Services Association PAC.
On Aug. 22, 2013, the complaint continued, Fincher signed a congressional letter to then-Attorney General Eric Holder and Martin J. Gruenberg, chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., complaining about the Justice Department’s “Operation Choke Point,” which was designed to “prevent payday lenders and other unscrupulous Internet-based companies from gaining access to the banking system through intermediaries.” That was three weeks after Fincher received a $5,000 campaign contribution from the Cash America International Inc. PAC, a payday lending industry PAC.
According to the Campaign for Accountability, the behavior “violated House rules and criminal law.” That remains to be seen.
What constituents might want to examine, however, is whether the behavior is true to the “common sense,” people-first approach to governance Fincher promised during his 2010 election campaign against Roy Herron, whose state Senate career was marked by vigorous attempts to reel in the predatory practices of payday and other short-term lenders.
Fincher had no comment when asked about the complaint. The people of West Tennessee deserve an explanation.